Chapter I: Up Wicked Hill
“If a black cat crosses one’s path this is an omen of bad luck.”
The sun was setting as I began my climb up Wicked Hill. The farmer with the white horse who gave me a ride from the depot stopped at the foot bridge. “No men are welcome on Wicked Hill,” he said. I looked down on the riling water racing beneath my feet. Allowed or not, I wondered how he could get his horse and wagon to ford that stream.
“What is the name of that river?” I asked him. Ain’t got a name, I’m told.
The farmer handed me my bag. “I come along this way every Saturday to market,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready to leave, come sun up of a Saturday, I’ll be along.”
I nodded, knowing that there would be no way I would leave Wicked Hill, for I had no money and nowhere to go. A hired girl must be particular of the company she keeps, so I just smiled at the farmer. I stroked the nose of his white horse for luck and waved as the wagon rolled on by. A hired girl must keep her counsel and keep her wages if she’s to get on in the world.
That’s what I was now. No longer Amy Scoggins, the pride of the church choir and darling of the congregation, just Amy Scoggins, some poor orphan girl from Fool’s Gap. In my bag was a crumpled letter from Miss Juanita Jenkins, the choir leader, speaking of my hard work, and another from Preacher Snodgrass speaking to my good character. I had no way of knowing if the job had been filled or even if I was what she was looking for, but I was ready to please Miss Wicks as soon as I laid eyes on her. I was a pleaser. I would make her pleased with me just as I had every one in Fool’s Gap.
The way up Wicked Hill was rocky and steep. The road was no more than wheel ruts, and on either side the pastures were knee deep in weeds. Nothing but weeds and the little wandering breeze passing through the brush with blue blossoms that clung to the hillside.
It was dusk when I reached the farmhouse on Wicked Hill. There before me was a big double-story house of brick with three pillars in front holding up to another little porch on top. I lifted my eyes in the half light for a row of little windows on the pitch of the roof which must be the attic. One of those little windows might look out a room that was going to be mine. Just a bed and a table and a chair-and dust-but enough, God willing, for Amy Scoggins.
Squaring my shoulders I marched up to the wide front door and rapped the heavy bronze knocker. I waited, as you do, not to be bold, just ready to let whoever’s inside know you’re there. After counting to ten, I rapped once more, this time a little longer and a little harder. I put my little ear up to the door. No sound at all. Not even an echo. Stepping back into the dooryard I noticed no light coming from any of the windows. Is anyone to home?
Then I heard the sounds of groaning as the big front door scrapes open and a black cat jumps out of the darkness. I ran off the steps as the cat hissed and arched its back at my feet.
“Who’s there?” came a gruff voice from the doorway.
“It’s me, Ma’am. Amy Scoggins. Miss Juanita Jenkins sent me. I’m your new hired girl.”
“I’ll decide that,” came the voice in the darkness. “Tabitha, shoo!”
The black cat ran off in the night and I hurried inside. All was gloom in the long hall I stepped into. There was no telling where I was or who was there in the dark.
“Well,” said the voice crossly, “if you are hired to help, help me get some light in here. I was commencing to light the lamps when I was interrupted by the knock at the door.”
Now I felt foolish to be the cause of the darkness that so afeared me, but no doubt that was the old voice’s purpose. To put me in my place. I simpered a little to let her know I was smiling there in the dark and said sweet as pie, “Yes, Ma’am. I’m here to help, and I am very good at trimming lamps. No smoke, no lampblack with the way I get them lit. Just show the way, please, and there will be light here soon enough.”
“Gabby little thing,” the old voice commented by reply.
I walked on in the darkness following what seemed to be a big black lump of meanness down that long dark hallway which finally turned into a pantry with a banked hearth.
I followed that mean old voice into the light of the dying fire. It belonged to a large shapeless old woman who heaved herself down in a rocking chair. The chair groaned with her weight.
“Now if I only had a reaching stick,” the old woman sighed.
“I’m here to help. Ma’am,” I said all perky.
“Then fetch me my snuffbox there on the cupboard.”
I made my way through the dusty darkness looking for something like a cupboard that might hold a snuffbox. I went past the pie safe next to the dry sink and followed the pie rail over to what seemed to be the cupboard. Feeling around I found a little hinged box that I took to her. She accepted it with a grunt.
Looking around for any food left out, I commented, “If there are any leftovers from dinner that I could put away. . .”
“I thought you were going to trim the lights,” she interrupted.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said and got started. I pulled down the ceiling lamp. There was still oil in it. I snatched a broom straw from an old besom next to the hearth and caught it a fire, and lifting the hurricane glass I lit the kerosene wick. That whole dark room filled with light. I turned to my mistress and smiled.
My! What an ugly old woman she was. One long woolly brow across both piggy eyes. Warts around her neck. Swollen hands and feet. Bands of fat spread out in puddles spilling from her body. She did not smile back.
“There’s a candle over there you could light,” she said.
I took the broom straw and lit it in the kerosene wick and carried it to the candle on the shelf at the hallway. No sign of food anywhere.
Turning to my new mistress I smiled once again. “I haven’t eaten since this morning and I was hoping before it got too late. . .”
“Yes?” Her voice sounded guarded.
“That I might have my supper, Ma’am.”
“You had best take that up with your mistress, girl.”
“But aren’t you? I mean, aren’t you Miss Wicks?”
“That I am,” the old girl nodded, digging into her snuffbox. “But I sent out no inquiries for hired girls. You must want my sister, Miss Marietta. I am Miss Henrietta Wicks.”
“But why?” I started to complain, then saw the first sign of a smile sprout from her cracked lips. She was all eyes and ears ready to hear me out. I stopped and started again, “But where is she, Ma’am? I should see her before it gets too late.”
“That you should,” the old girl nodded. She took her time poking the black snuff into her lower gums. Then she spoke up once again. “Take the backdoor and follow the path by the henhouse before it gets too dark. The path will take you through the woods to the cabin in the clearing.”
I looked out the window at the dark. “Perhaps, I could borrow a lantern to show me the way,” I asked.
She raised her long woolly brow in surprise. “I don’t lend my property to others,” she said, “no matter how they simper and smile.”
With that I gathered my bag and was off into the dark. The moon was beginning to peek over the mountaintop. There was enough light for me to find the henhouse where the soft clucking sounds of sleeping chickens I found strangely soothing. From there I saw the path that led down through the tall trees that swayed in the wind above. Under my feet I could hear the earth itself moaning as the wind shivered through me. Before long I came to the clearing.
There stood a pretty little cabin with a light shining in the window and trail of smoke coming from the chimney. On the wide porch were dried gourds and flowers hanging from its rafters. I marched up to knock on the door. Then out of the darkness, across my path, there snarled that same black cat that beset me at the farmhouse. I let out a yell and critter bounded off into the dark.
The door of the cabin opened a crack. “Who’s there?” A sharp, shrill voice commanded.
“If you please, Ma’am, are you Miss Marietta Wicks?” I called nearly pleading.
“Who asks?” came the guarded reply.
“Amy Scoggins,” I said. “I’m your new hired girl you sent for.” I started digging in my bag for the letters that would square the matter.
“Come to light, so I might see you,” the bird-like voice told me.
Gathering my bag and letters I walked up to the door, which the person inside opened wide enough for me to enter. The room was white-washed with rose chintz curtains and little china dishes all around. A goodly fire danced in the fireplace. I spied another room behind the hearth. All in all, a cozier trade than that farmhouse.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
I turned and faced the silver-haired little lady as thin as a broom straw, just as skinny and slight as her sister was big and fat.
“Let me look at you, girl,” she said, her face wrinkled with smiles. I smiled back. “My, you are a pretty thing!” she cooed. “So young! Is this your first time for hire?”
“Oh, no, Ma’am. I was a year hired out to Miss Juanita Jenkins who penned this here letter listing all I done for her.” I grabbed the letter from my bag and pushed it in her hand.
The little lady did no more than glance at it. She seemed content to stare at me instead. “And what are your skills, my dear?” she asked.
I gulped and launched into a long budget of chores that Miss Juanita had me do. “I can cook,” I began.
“We have a cook,” she said.
I gulped again. “I sweep, scrub, mop, sew a little, wash windows, and the baseboards, clean fireplaces and haul ashes, do the laundry and the ironing, bleaching and bluing, rake leaves, shovel snow, pull weeds, and help with the canning,” I said, drawing breath.
“Goodness!” the sweet voice sighed. “If you did so much for this Miss Jenkins, I am surprised she could part with you.”
“She didn’t, Ma’am. I stayed with her until the end and then I stayed to bury her.”
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